Don't let coal-country voters overshadow nuclear voters

Don't let coal-country voters overshadow nuclear voters
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Over the last few presidential elections, there’s been a ton of focus on winning “coal voters.” In 2008, then-candidate Obama appeared to cast away their votes, willingly, with his comment that “If someone wants to build a new coal-fired power plant they can, but it will bankrupt them.” In 2012, you had the Obama campaign seeking to tar Mitt RomneyWillard (Mitt) Mitt RomneyPoll: House GOP candidate leads in California swing district Super PACs spend big in high-stakes midterms Kavanaugh and the 'boys will be boys' sentiment is a poor excuse for bad behavior MORE as anti-coal. Then-candidate Trump made a huge deal about coal, and coal voters seemed to pretty obviously jump aboard the Trump Train.

Coal: We hear a lot about it. What we don’t hear as much about, but which might have been as important in determining the outcome of the 2016 election was something else: The nuclear vote.

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There’s been de facto radio silence regarding nuclear power in the presidential campaign realm since 2008, when McCain talked about it in the context of his energy and climate plans, and when Obama was running as a senator from Illinois, where a lot of energy is generated by nuclear (and, yes, coal).

 

The truth, though, is that for all the focus on “coal voters,” “nuclear voters” may be a pretty key constituency, too — or at least they were in 2016. Understanding that helps one understand why some people in the administration, and the president himself, see support for nuclear power as politically important, as well as valuable in terms of things like grid resiliency and the ability of power plants to function in or withstand things like majorly destructive hurricanes.

Across America, there are nuclear reactors in 63 counties. Trump won 50 of those counties in the 2016 primary and 48 in the general election.

In general, nuclear power plants are found in red states and blue collar communities, i.e., the kinds of places that Trump’s stereotypical base lives. Nuclear power plants also employ a lot of folks who don’t have lots of letters behind their names and voluminous degrees, but who tend to get paid pretty well and want to keep it that way. That sounds exactly like a lot of Trump voters, right? That’s because in the main, a lot of them likely were.

A lot of nuclear facilities at risk of closure are found in Ohio and Pennsylvania — one of which Trump won by a healthy margin he’d like to keep, and one of which he won pretty narrowly, but he’d like to win again. And it’s worth noting that in local press coverage of energy companies in these states winding up in trouble, nuclear seems to trump coal in terms of the importance attached to it. Note that when the Toledo Blade reported on FirstEnergy Corp. filing for bankruptcy, they focused on the nuclear power plants that may be closing. Not coal.

If you’re a political strategist thinking ahead to 2020, and asking how the president’s favored policies can be deployed to useful political effect, you would have to think that his plan to bolster not just coal but nuclear, would at least come in handy in both in a couple years’ time.

Not that politics should be dictating our energy policy, but inevitably it has, does, and always will influence it on some level. At a minimum, if we’re talking nuclear, likely political support for it will exist for it to a decent degree for as long as nuclear plants successfully weathering major hurricanes, particularly in the swing state of Florida, and help keep the lights on so politicians (potentially) are more immunized to Hurricane Katrina-type threats to their approval ratings when events like Hurricane Harvey come around. Political support may also accrue to it because, as we’ve seen in other areas of policy such as trade, where the president goes policy-wise, Republican voters tend to follow.

The upshot here, though, is this: While plenty more campaign cash will continue to be devoted to cultivating the votes of coal voters — maybe in 2020 even by the Democratic nominee, as we saw with Obama in 2012 — coal voters are not the whole story when it comes to an energy-focused voting bloc in the Rustbelt, even if the national conversation has tended to focus more on them than the real-life Homer Simpsons of the world.

Liz Mair is the founder, president and owner of Mair Strategies LLC. Over her career, Liz has advised clients in the energy sector, including coal, nuclear, oil and gas, and renewable energy companies and trade associations.